BNF: Concept and Product Design for The Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Imagine comprehensive drug information in the palm of a doctor’s hand

Pharmaceutical Press asked Modern Human to reimagine the BNF product family with a focus on integrating digital and print products. Modern Human’s design research and product concepts led to the creation of a suite of user-centred medical information products that have since been described as ‘indispensable’ to doctors in the UK.

Unless you are a medical professional, you may not have heard of the British National Formulary (BNF), but for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and paramedics it provides all of the information needed to safely prescribe medicines to patients. It is the authoritative and comprehensive catalogue of details about all the medicines that are currently available on the National Health Service, including indications, contraindications, side effects, doses, legal classifications and prices.

First published in 1949, it is rumoured that the BNF was originally designed to fit in the pocket of a doctor’s white coat. These days you are more likely to see a doctor carrying an iPad than wearing a white coat, so Pharmaceutical Press approached Modern Human about reimagining this vital medical resource. They specifically wanted us to focus on building a family of integrated digital and print products that would provide authoritative and clear access to drug information. The result of our work with Pharmaceutical Press is a family of products that have revolutionised the way many medical professionals in the UK access information.

“We had to almost start from scratch to create a new structure that accounts for all of the new uses and new angles on therapy that have emerged since the early 1980s, which can be rigorously applied across the whole product suite. That has allowed us to build much better digital products.”

Karen Baxter, BNF Director

In order to create a concept that would have real impact on medical professionals we needed to understand more about how, when and why medical professionals use the BNF. We immersed ourselves in the worlds of doctors, nurses and pharmacists, to find out more about how they work and their needs for drug information. We shadowed doctors as they went about their ward rounds. We observed nurses as they administered drugs. We watched pharmacists checking and dispensing prescriptions in busy hospital pharmacies. We went on home visits with GPs. We observed nurses attending to patients in the treatment room.

Our design research gave us an unprecedented understanding of the working lives of healthcare professionals. Observing their behaviour and witnessing their workflows enabled us to understand their goals, identify their latent needs, and discover what was most important to them about the BNF. Our research made it abundantly clear that future products had to provide intuitive and fast access to clear information. Mistakes could cause serious harm.

We began by working on a concept for a digital product. Using the insights we had gathered during our design research, we identified the key features that were of the most importance to medical professionals. We iterated our concepts through rounds of testing with healthcare professionals in different clinical settings and in 2017 the BNF App was launched.

The App places critical drug information in the palm of every medical professional’s hand, and has already been widely praised by doctors, nurses and pharmacists around the UK. Key to the user interface is the super-fast search and easy to use interaction checker that, at a single touch of the screen, helps clinicians ensure the safety of their patients by checking for possible drug interactions. It contains both the adult’s and children’s versions of the BNF and is updated monthly, meaning doctor’s always have access to the most comprehensive and up-to-date information. The App also requires no log in, meaning the information is accessible immediately in the event of an emergency.

A year after launch, the BNF App was in use by a third of prescribers in the NHS and has been widely praised for an intuitive interface and providing easy access to information, with one medical professional referring to it as an “indispensable app for doctors in the UK”. The drug interaction checker has been particularly well received, with clinicians describing it as “really elegant” and “one of the most useful, time saving tools to reduce medication errors, and save untold hours of manually checking them.”

The App has been rated consistently highly on the iOS App Store (4.7) and Google Play Store (4.2). It was ranked as the number 1 App in the medical category on the App Store within one week of its release in 2017, and remained in the top 5 Apps in the category a year later.

To date, it has been used to safely prescribe medication to over four million patients in the UK. Usage continues to grow and the App is currently used in 1.5 million cases a month.

“It’s been clear to us when testing the products that people pick these new products up, intuitively know how to use them and quickly get a grasp of how the content is organised”

Karen Baxter, BNF Director

We set about refreshing the print publications of the BNF at the same time as our work on the App. Our design research had given us a deep insight into the things that medical professionals really valued about the BNF. We had observed them stroking the large edition number on the cover, and knew that the colour of each book reassured them that they were using the latest possible drug information. We looked back at the history of the BNF and took inspiration from the original 1949 design, but introduced a new, vibrant colour palette. We utilised the award winning sans serif FF Dagny because of its presence, modern aesthetic, legibility and range of weights. The combination of bright new colour palette and modern typeface created a cover that looked towards the future, while still honouring the history of the publication. We also moved from the bespoke size, originally designed to fit in a doctor’s coat pocket, to a standard A5 size. The standard size better fits alongside other books on a bookshelf, and will also reduce future printing costs.

The BNF product family includes the sister publications, the British National Formulary for Children (BNFC) and Nurse Practitioner’s Formulary (NPF). The NPF is a much thinner publication than the BNF, so there was no danger of confusing the two. The BNFC, on the other hand, is similar in thickness to the BNF. We utilised the secondary colours from our new colour palette and designed a distinctive cover and spine layout, to ensure the BNFC could be easily differentiated at a glance. BNF70 was published in October 2015 and was the first edition to bear the new design.

We deliberately took a minimalist approach when applying the brand to the BNF App. We wanted to create the sense of a product family, but we didn’t want to lose sight of the key purpose of the App: to facilitate fast, intuitive access to vital information. We made the decision to apply the standard interaction patterns of the respective platforms, in order to maximise usability and minimise the learning curve.

Modern Human imagined new, digital BNF products and reimagined the well established print publications. We created an overarching product identity that creates a clear relationship between products. Our work also enabled a radical shift in the publishing process, and will enable Pharmaceutical Press to publish a single set of content to multiple platforms. Our work has also opened up potential new revenue channels for Pharmaceutical Press; although the BNF App is provided free in the UK, new opportunities overseas, in the high street pharmacy sector and in drug development with pharmaceutical companies have been identified as a result of its success. These channels are currently being explored.